As we enter Advent and a new church year we look forward to Christmas. For many December is the time that they countdown to Christmas. However, receiving the Christ child requires that we prepare ourselves for that gift. Advent then is a time of preparation. At time when we prepare for our future hope.
The words of Jeremiah we read this morning are perhaps more true today than at any point since they were written. Jeremiah wrote these words just before the Israelites are sent into exile in Babylon. In fact in the section that we read this morning the army of Babylon is currently laying siege to Jerusalem. Jeremiah himself has been sequestered by King Zedekiah. Jeremiah has been confined and placed under guard in the palace. It seems King Zedekiah does not like what Jeremiah has to say. The Israelites are about to be torn from their power base, they are feeling uncertain and disoriented.
Today we live in a time that is similarly disorienting. We live in a post-Christian world. We are on the outside looking in. Many people ridicule us for our beliefs, thinking we are old fashioned or superstitious.
Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “I believe that the phase of the Christian movement that we call Christendom (the domination of official Christianity in the Western world) is coming – has come – to an effective end, despite vestiges of Christendom that continue today and may continue for a long time.”
Hall continues, “…I believe that, appearances to the contrary, we North American churches are also now being pushed visibly to the periphery. And the question is: Are we just going to let this happen to us, or can we give some concrete direction to this process of disestablishment? … We can in some meaningful sense disestablish ourselves and in the process recover something of our genuine mission in the world.”
Jeremiah tells them to take heart that the day is coming when God will restore the Kingdom. That a king in the line of David will come. That king is Jesus Christ. We prepare for the coming of Jesus amidst the turmoil of life.
In both our reading from Jeremiah and Luke there is a sense of despair. Things are not as they should be, people are unsettled and perhaps they do not want to hear what is being shared with them. Perhaps we have problems hearing the message that Jesus has for us in Luke’s gospel or we wish that Jeremiah wouldn’t be so vocal about telling us how we have strayed from God.
It is odd that as we await and anticipate the birth of baby Jesus, we first need to encounter an adult and very stern Jesus. A Jesus who warns us not to feast and celebrate too much. Jesus who tells us that strange events will occur and that people in countries will be in despair. Despair is characterized primarily by the conspicuous absence of theological hope. Humans meet despair when they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future.
If you have come to church on this morning the first Sunday in Advent expecting more of what contemporary culture provides then I fear you may be disappointed. The church is not here to offer empty platitudes or remind people that everything will be alright. The church is here to point towards Jesus Christ.
As Christians we mark time in a different fashion than the rest of the world. For the rest of the western world Christmas is the end of the year. The day of gift giving marks the end of a long year and harkens to the beginning of a new one. For us as Christians, this morning we have already begun a new year. Today on the first Sunday of Advent marks the first day of sacred time as we look towards the birth of Jesus Christ. Those outside the church use December as a countdown to Christmas. For us we count forward to a time that begins with Christ.
Have you ever noticed how people countdown to Christmas? Only three more Sunday’s until Christmas. I believe I first saw a countdown like that back at Hallowe’en. Of course Christmas isn’t the only event that society holds a countdown for. Almost every major holiday has a countdown. The Friday past was Black Friday, a time to get all the cheap deals. It had a countdown. Some people countdown to St. Patrick’s Day. The long weekend in May gets a countdown. The start of your vacation gets a countdown. How many years until retirement gets a countdown.
We count everything down and in doing so we never look forward to our future hope. We never count forward and as a result we don’t anticipate the promise that is found in Jesus. We countdown from one event to the next and as a result we don’t look forward to future promises. Because we are always counting down to an event, we don’t take the time to plan, to anticipate and to participate in God’s future promises.
Today for the church is New Year’s Day. Not a day for resolutions, but a day to re-affirm our love for God. A day for the community of faith to remember the trust that is found in God’s promise, past, present and future.
We consider the readings we have heard from Jeremiah and Luke this morning and we see despair. We are baffled that this is what we are reading this morning, on a morning where we attach the word ‘hope’ to all we do. However, we are called to witness the despair. We are called to be challenged by it and in doing so to see the hope that awaits us on the other side.
This morning we see the importance of waiting, anticipating and trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current circumstance. This morning we are given the task not of looking back and hearing the story of Jesus birth as Luke’s gospel recounts it. A story that starts with “In those days…” Today we are not hearing the story that begins “Once upon a time…” This morning we are called to bear witness to the promise that is found in the words, “The days are surely coming … when I will fulfill the promise I made…” Today at the beginning of the year we look forward to our future hope.
Today we lit an advent candle to celebrate the coming hope we have in Jesus Christ. However, our readings prepare us for justice and righteousness. Of a future hope that is coming.
Friends, I long for a day that is surely coming, where we can boast in God’s future. For a day when we will stop producing body bags and instead produce sleeping bags. I long for a day when we will not require sleeping bags for our homeless. When the poor are not sequestered to shelters or the streets. I long for the day when abundance can be known by all, not just a few elite. I long for a day when violence is but a shadow. I long for a day where malice, racism and sexism no longer tear the world asunder.
Friends today we are called to the task of holy imagining. Today we asked to look forward at our future hope. Today we look forward to a day when justice and righteousness will be known by all people. That is the hope we are called to. This is what we work towards. We do not countdown to when that day will happen, we works towards a future in which it will occur.
In bringing Jesus Christ to earth God got very creative. We are called to harness the creative energy of God, to imagine what God’s kingdom might look like and to do the work of bringing that kingdom into being.
Jeremiah lived and wrote during uncertain times. Today we too live in uncertain times. People question our faith, they question our motives. We live in a time of disestablishment and that is scary. Expectations of what it means to be the church from ten, twenty and fifty years ago no longer hold true. The church is seeking to rediscover itself and how it can best carry out God’s plan for creation. We need to be thinking about this at all times, but especially now at Advent. We need to work through the challenges of proclaiming God’s kingdom, so that when the King is born we will be ready. Amen.